The year following the Singles Collection brought a new single in “Love Glove.” At the time I contrasted the pretty melody and vibe with Duran Duran’s chart topping “Wild Boys” single that also reached the public in ’84. It had seemed like the erstwhile New Romantics from Birmingham had copped tricks from the Visage playbook while Strange + co. released their most Duran-like single yet. Yet “Love Glove” got only as high as fiftysomething in the UK charts. Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
The second single was “Beat Boy” and one could not help but notice that the semi-official “New Romantic House Band” were attempting to make music after the fall of New Romanticism in the public bosom. The order of the day was blue-eyed soul and “big rock” music with heavy guitars. At least we were spared the sight of Steve Strange with a mullet, though the Max Factor explosion on the cover of the subsequent “Beat Boy” album couldn’t have been more out of tune with the visual trends of 1984 and the “new sincerity.” How did the album hold up with no remaining members with Ultravox or Magazine pedigrees?
The “Beat Boy” single led the album off and it plays like a successful electro followup to their previous “Pleasure Boys” single. Sampling had by now been fully integrated to the band with a high-tech groove firmly attained with percussive machine samples integrating nicely with Steve Barnacle’s deep bass. Andy Barnett was the new guitarist and though his pedigree saw him leap from Corey Hart’s band [!] he nonetheless attains a perfect Midge Ure vibe on this song at least. While the 12″ was 7:20 long, the LP cut here seems to be about 90% of the 12″ mix. I’d be hard pressed to notice much difference in the mix between the two. Not a bad start at all.
Then the aptly named “Casualty” hit and all bets were off. Good gravy, but this was dire lite-metal of a very poor stripe with what I’m assuming are Andy Barnettt backing vocals duetting on the verses with Strange. The pathetic results aren’t helped in the least by the horrorshow female backing vocals that were as clichéd as the day was long. And this tune was also ridiculously overlong; scraping over the six minute mark. This was undoubtedly the worst Visage track your ears will ever hear.
The next cut managed to scrape itself out of the dumper with a more sophisticated jazzfunk approach. “Questions” was not a million miles away from that Level 42 were doing at this time with Gary Barnacle’s MOR sax stylings sitting comfortably with his brother’s fretless bass. It attains a decent vibe, but like everything here so far, it’s too long by half. Still, it pointed another valid way out of the New Romantic cul-de-sac as successfully as the band’s previous two electro singles.
Then, it was a case stylistic whiplash back to pounding rock for the cut “Only The Good Die Young.” Careful perusal of the writing credits revealed that Billy Currie and Dave Formula contributed to the writing, but it fails to inspire in any case. The deep driving bass and rock guitars manage to best the previous attempt to rock on “Casualty,” [which isn’t too hard] and the baritone saxes are a nice touch, but the writing seems to have been on the wall in regards to the track time and the endless riffing that pads out the last 2:30 of the cut reeks of a lack of material or self-indulgence at the very least.
Side one was trending poorly. Side two corrects the trim of the sails on the good ship Visage with “Can You Hear Me” being a real highlight for these ears. The long ambient intro is painted with delicate washes of synths harkening back to “Whispers” from “The Anvil” and it’s an approach that works for the group. When the song gets moving, it’s animated with Krautrock derived rhythms that are really what Visage should have been investigating more thoroughly even if they were moving from a club to rock context. Those rhythms are compelling no matter what their setting. This track managed to meet the mid-80s head on with a logical outgrowth of the traditional Visage sound being updated to something that was au courant, yet still appealed to my ears; not an easy trick to achieve in 1984. Just ask almost any band I liked! This cut worked so well for me, it managed to handily survive the MOR Gary Barnacle sax solo near the end. Tellingly, the 6+ minute running time flew by.
Speaking of running time, “The Promise” is the only track on the album that seemed to have been edited down to a proper running time of 4:00. While it’s not the most stellar track here, no one can fault its length, which is appropriate for a change. The “Love Glove” single was also relatively brief with a 4:50 length supported without sounding as if it had been padded with filler. ironically, the US edition of the “Beat Boy” album, which I had purchased first, includes the 12″ mix of the single, adding to the sensation of filler on the LP!
The closing track, “Yesterday’s Shadow,” was another winner with slow-mo Moroder sequencers giving the languid electro ballad a luxurious feel that managed to bolster the tune against Gary Barnacle’s slick sax work that by this time, I was over and done with. When John McGeoch played sax in the band earlier, he was more rudimentary on the instrument being that guitar was his primary instrument. It kept the sax work from becoming too slick as it usually was here. Steve Barnacle’s fretless bass work is nothing to complain about, in contrast. He compares favorably to his predecessor Barry Adamson. If anything. his versatility exceeded Adamson’s. He can play any style of bass well here. The end result was another track that justified it’s 6+ minute running time fairly well.
In concluding, this album offered me two good singles, two great album cuts, one fair album cut, and three failures. There was a lot of vitriol for this album on its initial release. I bought a copy and never troubled it too much in playback, it’s true. This changed somewhat in 1999 when I picked up a copy of the “Master Series” CD while in Spain [back when I had money]. It contained five of the eight cuts from “Beat Boy” on CD for the first time, and with the passage of 15 years time, I felt that the material [“Love Glove,” “Beat Boy,” “Questions,” “Only The Good Die Young,” and “The Promise”] acquitted itself admirably over the time I had disdained and ignored the material. Compared to what almost everyone else I liked had excreted in the mid-80s, the missteps on the third Visage album were not entirely fatal. Some of this actually sounded good and succeeded for me. The only irredeemable track was “Casualty” but I’ll admit that when I thought back to this album over the years, that was what came immediately to mind as representative of the album as a whole.
In 2011 I bought the 2009 Cherry Red DLX RM of this title, and while it brought back the horror of “Casualty” with stunning clarity, it also offered the highlights of “Can You Hear Me” and “Yesterday’s Shadow.” In 2013 I have to admit that this album fails to shock me into rejecting it outright, as I had in ’84. Whether this is by the fact that I’ve heard so much worse than this [albums by Ultravox come to mind] by groups I liked even more or not, it was none the less surprising to me to contemplate.
This album saw Visage trimmed of all of the Ultravox and Magazine DNA that brought me to the table initially, and while disappointing in its time, I had to admit that the end result managed to work at least part of the time in a post-New-Romantic context. The strongest new member was definitely Steve Barnacle, who contributed varied and entirely successful bass work to the proceedings. Fretted, synth, or fretless; it all worked for me. Andy Barnett and Gary Barnacle were more problematic. At best, Barnett channelled Midge Ure on one cut and at worst, he was a low-rent, one-man Def Leppard clone! Gary Barnacle is a session pro that just didn’t work in the context of this group for me. His professionalism actually rubbed me the wrong way here.
As it was, this was the end of the Visage line for decades. “Beat Boy” connected with few heads listening in 1984 and Strange and Steve Barnacle went on to form the group Strange Cruise featuring Wendy Wu [ex-Photos] with a single album and a handful of non-selling singles to show for it. I found a Steve Strange solo single in 1991 that wasn’t too bad, actually. But I wasn’t holding out for more Visage in my life for the last 25 years, so when word reached my ears that Steve had been trying to get a new Visage lineup cooking in the new millennium I didn’t lose sleep over it. So imagine my surprise when after a Visage Mk II lineup from 2005 seemed to turn to vapor a few years back to have an all new Visage lineup appear last year and actually generate a new album that’s in my record cell right now.
Next: …Ashes to phoenix?